|Back to Table of Contents
|Lords Hansard Home Page
Lord Bowness: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. They may be better informed about what Christopher Booker thinks, but would the noble Lord not agree that they might be quite confused about what is the reality?
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, frankly, I have always found that Christopher Booker is usually right on the ball and in the end has the matter right. He had it right on fridges, for example, long before anyone else got on top of the problem.
First, there is the distribution of the £1 billion a year structural funds, for which British taxpayers have already paid £1.6 billion. Therefore, we only get our own money back less quite a lot. Apart from that, there is an ongoing drive by the EU for regionalisation, which can be traced back to the Werner report, which warned that regional and structural polices would eventually no longer be exclusively within the jurisdiction of member countries. It was followed by the Marjolin report which confirmed that. Tindeman's report the same year predicted that regional policy would have to expand gradually with progress in aligning the economic and monetary policies of member countries.
Then of course we come to our old friend Jacques Delors, the Artful Dodger of European politics. He reorganised, through a framework regulation, the payment of structural funds direct from Brussels to the regions, thus bypassing member states' governments. That led to the setting up of regional offices in each of the English regions by the previous government. That was further developed in 1998 by the creation of regional development agencies. Those are now to be followed by elected regional assemblies.
The next little piece of history shows that regionalisation has a serious EU dimension. Occasionally, certain Europeans state openly that the days of the nation state are numbered. It is little wonder that people such as the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and myself and a substantial body of opinion are suspicious of the real intent behind the establishment of elected regional assemblies. No doubt
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, this is a Second Reading debate. While 12 minutes is recommended, there is no compulsion on people to hold to it. I shall say what I intended to say and if I am not further interrupted, I shall be able to get on with it faster.
I want finally to raise the question of public funds being used to fund organisations campaigning in favour of elected regional assemblies, but not available to those campaigning against them. That certainly seems to be happening in the North East where local councils are using taxpayers' money to support the North East Assembly/Association of North East Councils.
That is a gross, and possibly illegal, use of taxpayers' money and is unfair to those campaigning against elected regional authorities and the large body of council tax payers who also oppose these assemblies. Significant sums of money are involved. I sincerely hope, since this is undoubtedly cheating the public and gaining an unfair advantage for one side of the argument, the Government will hold an inquiry into this, or at least refer it to the Electoral Commission.
It is not our practice to vote on Bills at Second Reading, but if we were voting today, I would certainly have no hesitation in voting against this one. Perhaps we can do something about it in later stages.
Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, for me, this is the most important Bill before us in this Session. I know that it is only a paving Bill for a regional government Bill to come before the House later, but even so we are being asked to agree measures of which we have no detail and yet which could lead to this country being governed in a manner completely foreign to us and our fellow citizens. It is therefore imperative to debate the Bill's consequences.
The Government's record since coming to power in 1997 is one of destruction of some of our most noble and honourable institutions. I am sure that when an assessment is made of the period, no one will refer to it as one of the finest chapters in our history. The United Kingdom has seen its strengths undermined by the creation of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the London Assembly, and the Government have changed the House of Lords without having any idea of where to go from here.
The combined effect of such changes amounts to a revolution. Unless they are allowed time to bed down, they could destabilise our constitution. However, undeterred, the Government are embarking on yet another measure for which they are seeking your Lordships' endorsement without spelling out any of the basic elements.
I realise that the Bill is not concerned with setting up regional assemblies, but in order for electors to understand the issues, they must have more information than has been given to date. After all, how on earth can anyone be expected to vote or even bother to vote when they have not been told how it would affect their lives and their communities?
For me, one of the major problems is the air-brushing out of history of our proud nation of England. Scotland may have its Parliament, Wales and Northern Ireland may have their Assemblies, but the Government want England as we have known it for centuries to be divided into regions, and, as a consequence, to make England extinctan horrendous notion. I do not know whether that has come about as a result of the Scottish flavour of the membership of this Government or because the Prime Minister feels that it would play well with his European colleagues. I can only say that I have not met anyone who finds the initiative at all attractive.
The Labour Party argues that the regional assemblies would redress the imbalance for England that has been created by the Government by devolution. But that is simply not the case, as the powers of a regional assembly would be in no way equivalent to those acquired by the devolved parliaments in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. The new assemblies would inevitably spell an end to our traditional local government in rural areas. One could speculate that the county council tier of government has never been to the liking of the Labour Party because over the years it has more often than not been under Conservative administration.
The Government claim that powers would be handed down to the unitary authorities, but I believe that exactly the opposite would occur, with duplication of services and resources being sucked up to the regional body. The cost of the assemblies is as yet unknown and one can only speculate, but even if similar assurances as those made to Wales and Scotland were given, that certainly would not give me confidence. One has only to follow the history of the costs of the building projects in Edinburgh, Cardiff and London, which soared out of all recognition from the estimates, to understand why.
It is claimed that regional assemblies would be better placed to secure European grant money to aid projects in needy areas, but it is member states that agree the allocation, not regional government. It is also the member countries that distribute the funds to regional assemblies. As a consequence, there would be access to no extra funding whatever.
The Government have not and cannot give any answer to the West Lothian question. It is inconceivable and unacceptable that we should continue with a system under which Members of Parliament from Scotland can vote on issues concerning England and Wales while we in England are not even able to ask a question on Scottish subjects. We are just told, "That is a devolved matter". That answer is intolerable. The Government appear to suggest that regionalisation is an answer to the West Lothian question and would rectify the problem, but that is ridiculous. The powers of an assembly would certainly not be equivalent to those given to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
My concern is that dividing the country into massive, unwieldy regions will take decision-making further away from the people, not nearer. The present historic county structure is a tried and tested form of government. Regional assemblies would have only 25 to 35 members200 to 300 countrywide. On the other hand, the county councils have more than 20,000 members, who know their area and, more importantly, the constituents and their local problems, a point so well made by my noble friend Lord Elliott.
I now live in the beautiful county of Warwickshire, but in the past I lived in the former West Midlands county and served on its council. So I have experience of the different concerns and priorities of urban living. I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Smith of
The Bill would empower the Boundary Committee to make weighty decisions including where the constituency boundaries would be set and the type of unitary authority and influence over the referendum question. We need to ensure that we have as much information as possible before the Bill is passed. I look forward to our in-depth debate at Committee stage. I also look forward to hearing from the Minister this evening.
This is a horrid Bill. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, I do not see it as a comical affair. But I assure the Minister that I shall do all in my power to assist him in ensuring that his Bill will be much improved when it leaves this House.
Lord Waddington: My Lords, I cannot believe that the Minister's heart is in this Bill. He is far too sensible for that. I cannot recall a Bill presented to Parliament so deeply flawed. It is extremely difficult towards the end of the debate to know where to start.
Let us start with the White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice. Whether there is to be a referendum where you live is not your choice; the Deputy Prime Minister will choose, having considered the level of interest in a referendum. We have heard plenty of criticism of that provision and the unhealthy power that it gives the Deputy Prime Minister. I will not trouble the House by repeating those criticisms. It is difficult to take seriously the soundings exercise that is now in train and shortly to end, when one reads from reports of proceedings in another place that a person who writes to express fierce opposition to the whole idea of regional government may well be taken to be expressing interest in a referendum. Nothing could be more daft. But, apparently, that is the position, if one accepts what was said in Standing Committee A on 12th December and in the House on 23rd January. If it is not the position, I hope that the Minister will say so in plain terms. So far, no Minister has said that it is not the position.
Let us take the matter a stage further. The citizen told that there is to be a referendum where he lives may then find to his astonishment that he is being asked to vote for or against an assembly for a region that to the best of his knowledge has never existed, or to which he never thought for one moment that he belonged. Not he, but the Deputy Prime Minister, has decided that, for the purposes of this exercise, geography and
The bemused citizen may be approached by his diocesan bishop and persuaded to vote for an assembly. Noble Lords will know that some bishops seem to have taken a great interest in that spiritual matter. The bishop will not even be able to pass on heavenly guidance as to the powers and functions of the assembly, as they will not have been decided by Parliament. We have not yet been told that any hint of those powers will be given to Parliament by the Government before the first referendum takes place.
It is constantly said that the Bill is about bringing decision making closer to the people. In the words of the Deputy Prime Minister, it is about elected assemblies taking functions down from central government, not up from local authorities. That is a terrible distortion of the truth. A statement by Lancashire County Councilsupported by all parties, I remind the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who will follow mepoints out that present plans offer no significant degree of devolution. The White Paper makes it clear that virtually no new decision-making powers are to go to the regions from the Government. There will be a sucking-up of power to the regions from authorities closer to the people. The Liberal leader on Lancashire County Council called it,
The Government are being less than frank when they say that they have no plans to abolish the county councils. If any county councils survive, it will be no thanks to the Government; it will be as a result of a decision of the Boundary Committee, which has been commanded to go down the unitary authority route, whether it thinks that that is right or not. The decision of the Boundary Committee, in compliance with that demand from the Government, to turn a particular county council into a unitary authority is the only circumstance in which a county council will survive. As I said, the survival of such a council will be no thanks to the Government.
In every instance where there is now a county council, local government will become more remote from the people as a result of the disappearance of district authorities, whether the county council survives or not. In my area, Ribble Valley, it is inconceivable that any unitary authority will be as close to the people and as responsive to local needs as is Ribble Valley Borough Council, placed in the middle of a country area.
Not only will the regional authorities, with one member for up to 250,000 constituents, be remote from the people; in the North West, the assembly will be dominated by Manchester and Merseyside. I know that that was challenged by one noble Lord who is not now in the Chamber, I think, but it is a matter of pure arithmetic. The population figures prove it: most people in the North West come from the conurbations of Manchester and Merseyside. That is a recipe for drowning the interests of those who live in the countryside and those who live in small towns.
We have had plenty of local government changes in recent years. They have cost enough. According to a paper produced to assist us by the Library, the partial-Heseltine review at the beginning of the 1990s cost £669 million. The regional policy adviser for Cheshire County Council points out that Cheshire, where there is minimal demand for regional governmentI do not believe that anyone will challenge thatfaces a review and, if a North West referendum is successful, faces the disruption and cost of a full-scale reorganisation of local government when it has just settled down from the local government review conducted only about four years ago.
However, all those costs of local government reorganisation are a tiny part of what will be the total cost of government regional policy. Regional bureaucracies are already burgeoning, often with a proliferation of pointless non-jobs. During the debate on the Queen's Speech, I pointed out an advertisement for a community development workerTurkish speakingand the government office of the East Midlands seeking a director of community affairs responsible for the implementation of joined-up policy. You cannot get much dafter than that.
But wait until people are recruited to serve the elected assemblies. Wait until we are required to pay the regional councillors the £48,000 per year, plus £50,000 expenses, drawn by the one-and-a-half-day-week Members of the Scottish Parliament. They are bound to be paid something like that. The precedent has been set. Wait until they demand prestigious new buildings. I believe that one noble Lord suggested that it was their entitlement to have such.
If the Government consider that regional assemblies are the English answer to Scottish devolution, why are we not all being asked in a referendum whether we want this form of devolution? But, of course the Deputy Prime Minister was talking nonsense when he asserted at Second Reading that:
The assemblies are to have no legislative powers and functions which have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament are not going to be devolved to the regions. Nor will Mr Prescott shower money on the regionscertainly not on those which vote for elected assemblies. I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Dixon, that people are far more likely to take note of stated
One thing that the assemblies will do is compete with other regions for European largesse. I dread to contemplate the cost of junketing trips to Brussels, as one region tries to do down another. My noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch knows from harsh experience that one has only to mention Europe here to be accused of being paranoid. But I advise noble Lords, now and again, to read what my noble friend said a few years agohe has been uncannily right on a large number of occasions. What my noble friend Lord Bowness cannot deny is that, whether by accident or design, Mr Prescott's plans fit neatly into the Brussels idea of a Europe of the regions. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, in speaking to the European Parliament (Representation) Bill today, twice referred to the Government being committed to the "regional"namely, the Europeanregional agenda. Of course the Government are so committed. It is pathetic to pretend otherwise.
During the debate on the Queen's Speech, I called attention to a Brussels publication and its attached map of an area stretching from Kent to Oxford and down to the New Forest, which was described as,
I do not want the dismemberment of the United Kingdom. I do not want one part of the country set against another, with the emphasis always being on what makes us different rather than what binds us together. Even if this was what the Government pretend it is, a measure to devolve power from Westminster, I would be against it because as power was drained away from Westminster upwards to our masters in Brussels and drained away downwards to the regions, we would see this Parliament losing any real meaning or purpose.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who is an old friend of mine. At least he wakes me up and gets the adrenalin going. I speak as someone who has been campaigning for democratic regional government for the past 40 years. I have watched the Labour Party, first in the North West and then in the rest of the country, slowly come round to the concept. I recall
Nevertheless, in replying to the debate I must say that I welcome the Bill with two cheers rather than with three. Indeed, the second cheer is a rather feeble and weak affair, a bit like the powers proposed for regional government in the Bill. I listened with enthusiasm to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, who has had to leave to catch his train. I beg his pardon, I see that he has returned to the Chamber. We shall share anoraks after the debate. I noted too the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon. Both noble Lords made passionate speeches in favour of regional government in different parts of the North of England. However, I question whether the Government's proposals as set out in the White Paper will meet their aspirations, or will go even half way to meeting them. That is the problem. So while I disagree in principle with noble Lords such as the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, and the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, I disagree with the Government in what they have set out.
We have difficulty with four elements in the general proposal. Given that this is a paving Bill, it is right to discuss the broader concepts. First, we are concerned that the new regional assemblies will be weak and ineffective talking shops. Secondly, the assemblies will be too small in number to be representative of large and diverse regions such as the North West. For example, how would the Government persuade people in Cumbria to vote for a regional assembly in which they might have no more than two representatives? Thirdly, it does not appear that the new assemblies will genuinely take over and replace the huge, complex regional "quangocracy" discussed by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, which would be so much better if it were brought into local government. Fourthly, as a result of the proposals, will there be genuine jobs for the members of the regional assemblies? No doubt they will be well paid and expected to work full time. I share the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, over whether there are full-time jobs here.
Turning to the Bill, a number of questions have been asked. For example, my noble friend Lord Shutt of Greetland asked an interesting series of questions. However, we have three main concerns in regard to the detail of the Bill. The first is that when people are asked to vote in any referendum which may take place, they will be voting for a pig in a poke. It will not be clear what they are voting for. The Minister said that a paper would be issued giving a summary of the Government's proposals, but we know how many changes were made to the Greater London Authority Bill as it passed through Parliament, particularly in your Lordships' House. No doubt the same thing will happen with the referendum Bill. Even if the Government put forward their proposals in great detail, there is no guarantee that that is what we shall end up with.
The third area of concern relates to the genuine worries that exist about the consultation process. Who on earth in the North West knows that they are being consulted at the moment about whether or not they want a referendum? The answer is that it is people within the political systemcouncillors, Members of Parliament, those in the existing regional bodies and so onwho are being consulted. But for the people as a whole, where are the advertisements in the newspapers and on television; where are the programmes on local radio and the pamphlets through the doors?
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page